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Published: Monday March 10, 2014 MYT 3:25:01 PM
Updated: Monday March 10, 2014 MYT 3:26:24 PM

China rights advocates rally for Uighurs after knife attack

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese rights activists voiced alarm on the Internet over rising discrimination against ethnic Uighurs in the wake of a deadly attack at a Chinese train station that the government has blamed on militants from the western region of Xinjiang.

Top officials have noted mounting anxiety and resentment between the country's majority Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang since an attack in the southwestern city of Kunming on March 1 left 29 people dead and injured about 140 others.

Online accounts describe growing intolerance toward Uighurs across China, ranging from evictions from apartments to taxi drivers refusing to pick them up. After the train station attack, Reuters reporters saw signs in restaurants and hotels in Kunming saying Uighurs were unwelcome.

Rights activists have taken to social networks to decry the reported abuses and challenge the characterisation of Uighurs as dangerous or extremist.

"Because of the Internet we can learn about the many instances of Uighurs facing discrimination, from being unable to stay in hotels and having their street stalls chased away to being accused of being terrorists," prominent dissident Hu Jia said.

While more than 100 people, including several policemen have been killed in unrest in Xinjiang since last April, the slaughter at the train station in Kunming was one of the worst single acts of what the government has called militant violence.

Beijing has not explicitly accused Uighurs, but referred to the perpetrators as Xinjiang extremists.

China accuses armed Uighur groups of having links to Central Asian and Pakistani Islamist militants, and of carrying out attacks to establish an independent state called East Turkistan.

There is no evidence or even suspicion from official channels that Uighur militants may be linked to the disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines flight over the weekend, but conjecture about their involvement by some on China's Sina Weibo microblog raised alarm among many other users.

"This will only deepen ethnic misunderstanding and make Uighurs' plight more difficult," said Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer representing Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who has championed Uighur rights and is facing separatism charges.

The United States, European Union and international rights groups have demanded the release of Tohti.

Advocates of Tohti say he has challenged official versions of several incidents involving Uighurs, including one in Tiananmen Square in October, that China says was its first major suicide attack. His case is a sign of the government's hardening stance on dissent in Xinjiang, where Uighurs make up less than 50 percent of the population.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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